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Book Review: And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall

October 31, 2020 2 comments

Summary:
Grayson Sikes is a new private investigator and is taking on one of her first cases, but it’s looking for a man’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t seem to want to be found. She’s not too keen on trying to find a woman who wants to be gone.

Review:
Do you love black-and-white film noir but wish there was a story with a woman PI? How about a Black woman PI written by an own voices author? How about we get some actual backstory on the PI to find out just why she’s so hard-boiled anyway? And how about a femme fatale is also a Black woman? Then this, my friend, is the book for you.

I was utterly delighted to have a noir with, for once, a different case of characters but that still fits the genre’s markers. There’s even an excellent scene of Grayson pensively taking in the LA skyline with a note that its rich colors are the result of wildfires. I am here for this!

On that note, Grayson is not shy from telling it like it is. She’ll call out the wildfires. She’ll wonder if a witness is describing someone as disagreeable because she’s actually disagreeable or because that’s how Black women can be unfairly perceived. She’ll wonder if an ex-boyfriend really just wants his dog back or if it’s about control. She’ll wonder if the elderly neighbor lady is actually helpful or a busybody. Grayson’s questions are part of what makes her a good PI.

I do want to give a content warning that part of Grayson’s backstory includes both domestic violence and miscarriage [not a plot spoiler], so do please be aware if you prefer to avoid those topics.

Overall, as a fan of noir, I was delighted by finally getting some representation in this story. It both was fun to see and also made the story less predictable and more unique. More variety is a good thing! Pick this up if you love noir and want more or if you’ve never thought it was your jam because of the dripping masculinity. This twists expectations about gender in noir on its head.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek

Red book cover witha  fly on it and the title "Instruction Manual for Swallowing" written in pink, and the author's name "Adam Marek" written in black.Summary:
A collection of fourteen short stories taking one ordinary experience and inserting an extraordinary fantastical, scifi, or bizarro instance into the situation, seeing how the main character reacts.

Review:
A mixed collection, containing both 2 star and 5 star stories, although most stick right around the 3 star mark.  The stories veer between scifi and fantasy, although both have some bizarro element in them.

Where Marek excels is when he takes a little talked-about male experience and utilizes the unique qualities of genre fiction to explore it.  The only 5 star story in the collection, “Boiling the Toad” explores a male victim of domestic violence.  It does this in a powerful way without demonizing all women.  The story starts as “my life is so bizarre” but eventually becomes all too real.  It’s interesting to note that this is also the opposite of many stories in the collection.  Many start ordinary and turn bizarre.  Starting bizarre and turning ordinary worked much better.  Similarly, “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” explores male feelings about a cancer that is only possible to get if you have testicles.  Marek fairly eloquently presents the main character as attempting to defend his perceived manhood by trying to protect his girlfriend from a Godzilla-like monster attacking the city.  These stories are interesting, and I enjoyed exploring them.

Where the collection fails and flounders, though, is when the main character is self-centered and perceives of women as objects or only existing for his pleasure.  It’s incredibly difficult to feel any empathy for a character who wants to cheat on his wife but ends up failing because of a mysterious puking illness he gets at the sushi restaurant (Sushi Plate Epiphany) or to care about a man who calls his pregnant wife a monster and tries to cheat on her while she’s still carrying his children (Belly Full of Rain).  A lot of these stories incited an eye-roll and “boohoo it’s so horrible to be a man” sarcastic response from me, which I seriously doubt was what the author was going for.

Then there are the stories that simple don’t seem to have any point or make any sense.  They seem to just be getting going when Marek stops them abruptly.  Or they do seem to be at their end but there is just no point.  Both “the Forty-Litre Monkey” and “Jumping Jennifer” have a great set-up of a mystery but that mystery is never addressed.  They stop too soon.  “Instruction Manual for Swallowing” and “The Thorn” are highly fantastical yet the conflict isn’t set up enough so as to be interesting.

Marek’s writing style varies widely between the perfect tone for bizarro genre fiction and being overly pretentious for his genre.  For instance he writes sentences like this:

Being in the room felt like being suffocated in an armpit. (location 55)

But also pretentiously calls a college quad a “quadrangle” (“Jumping Jennifer”).

Overall then this is a widely varied collection of bizarro short fiction.  Some of the stories offer wonderful insight into male issues while others wallow annoyingly in the minds of terrible men who only think they have a problem, while still others set up a fantastic world but are ultimately boring due to lack of conflict.  If you are intrigued by any of the stories mentioned, I would advise getting a copy from the library since they will be quickly read, and you can return it when done.  Definitely feel free to skip around in this collection.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Lemon Reef by Robin Silverman

Silhouette of a person diving.Summary:
Jenna is a high-powered, newly appointed commissioner in San Francisco where she lives with her wife and their dog.  Life is good, and Jenna tries not to think too much about her rough childhood and teen years growing up in Florida.  But a phone call comes in.  Her first love, Del, has died diving at lemon reef at the young age of 30.  The mutual friend invites Jenna to the funeral, but when she arrives in Florida, she discovers that there’s more to it than that.  Del’s mother, Pascale, wants her help in getting custody of Del’s daughter, Khila, instead of her father, Talon, who Pascale insists must have murdered Del.

Review:
This book was a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read, which of course is a sign of a good book.

The plot structure is incredibly complex and engaging without ever being confusing.  There is the mystery of Del’s death, but also (for the reader) the mystery of why and how Del and Jenna’s romance ended tragically, as it is evident it did.  In addition there is the powerful emotions of a first love and first romance for a pair of teens who must grow up too fast thanks to the rough circumstances they find themselves in.  Silverman handles the past reminisces intermingled with the current mystery and discoveries quite eloquently.  I found myself admiring her talent in plot structuring throughout.

There are no easy answers in this book, and no one is easily demonized, including Talon.  Every single character has flaws and good qualities.  Del stands up for her siblings but won’t stand up for her love of Jenna.  Jenna loves people but can sometimes get too caught up in her own world and her own needs.  Pascale was an alcoholic when Del was in highschool but successfully quits in order to be able to spend time with her granddaughter.  Del’s sister Nicole breaks a lot of laws (including breaking and entering and prostitution), but she is fiercely loyal and stands up for those she loves.  The complexity of the characters and the situation is part of what makes it such an emotional read.  There’s no one to easily blame for the problems these women find themselves in.  I think this complexity points to Silverman’s experience both as a counselor and a lawyer.  She clearly understands human psychology and how problems are not always black and white but can be very gray.

The writing is lovely and fills in the framing of the plot and the characters.  There are lines that just totally grab you.

Because minds do blow and hearts do break. Those are not just sayings. And wolves and roaches are not the only creatures that chew off their legs to get out of traps—human beings do that, too. (location 3058)

I also really enjoyed that while Jenna’s coming out story (told in flash-backs and reminiscing) is rather typical, Del’s is much more complex.  She is bi but is uncomfortable with the fact that she likes women too.  She doesn’t want people to know, doesn’t say a thing about it to her sisters, denies it even.  But we find out later that there were other ways in which it was clear she did identify as bi and part of the community.  I won’t say how, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise.  But I found this complexity interesting.  It shows how for Jenna she had to push and come out because there was no other option. Del could sometimes pass but not always and clearly it was a struggle for her throughout her whole life.  This shows an understanding of what it is to be bi that I honestly was not expecting, as it is hard to find that in novels.

There were, unfortunately, a couple of things that didn’t quite live up to the rest of the book.  There were a few passages that weren’t as well-written or well-edited that detracted from the overall beauty of the book.  For instance, there is a scene in which a character points a flashlight at a floor but the narrator calls it the ground.  Things like that that are periodically clunky.  I’m sure this will improve with time, though, as this is Silverman’s first work of fiction.

I also was disappointed that we didn’t get to see very much at all in regards to how this whole drama of the first love’s mysterious death impacted Jenna’s relationship with her wife.  I was hoping this would be at least touched upon in the last chapter, but instead we just see Madison show up with Jenna for the funeral.  Since I had come to care for Jenna, I wanted to know how such a dramatic, emotional event would affect her new life and marriage with Madison.  It seems obvious to me that such an incident would at least lead to a few discussions and maybe difficult moments between a married couple.  I wanted to see that and not seeing it made Madison and Jenna’s marriage to her feel more like a prop than an actual element of Jenna’s life.

Overall, though, this is a unique work of GLBTQ lit.  Its themes of reconciling with your past, coming out, being queer, and first love are all beautifully told within a plot that keeps the reader invested and interested.  I highly recommend it to GLBTQ readers, but also to anyone with an interest in stories addressing the complexity of human relationships and the long-reaching impact of first loves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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